Russia unveils sanctions in British Council row

Britain escalates row with Russia:

Russia on Monday summoned the British ambassador after the British Council defied a government ban and reopened two regional offices, heightening diplomatic tensions between the two countries. Russian authorities also ordered sanctions against Britain's overseas cultural arm. The Foreign Ministry said no more visas will be issued for new British Council expatriate employees in Saint Petersburg and Yekaterinburg, accreditation renewals for existing employees will be blocked and a tax inquiry will be launched against the Saint Petersburg office. The ministry accused Britain of "premeditated provocation" and said in a statement that if Britain continued to defy Russian orders there could be moves against the British Council's office in Moscow too. The British Council promotes the country's culture and education. It has been involved in a long-running dispute with Russia over its legal status. "We will respond in due course," James Barbour, a spokesman for Britain's ambassador to Moscow Anthony Brenton, told AFP after the envoy was summoned to the Foreign Ministry for talks on the dispute.

"Our position all along has been that any move against the British Council by Russia would be a breach of international and Russian law," Barbour said. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said earlier that the British Council was "fully entitled" to operate in Russia and that the ban was "unacceptable." The Russian order to close British Council branches in the two cities reflects worsening ties since the 2006 murder by radiation poisoning of ex-Russian agent and fierce Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko in London. Diplomats were expelled on both sides last summer after Moscow refused to hand over former secret service bodyguard Andrei Lugovoi, the man wanted by Britain for killing Litvinenko.

Litvinenko was killed with radioactive polonium that was slipped into his tea in a London hotel, British prosecutors say. Lugovoi, who was recently elected to Russia's parliament, denies the British charges. Moscow said the British Council ban was in response to Britain's expulsion of the four Russian diplomats. Those expulsions also came on the heels of a spy scandal in 2006 in which Russia accused British diplomats of espionage. The reopening of the offices after a winter holiday break came despite a Foreign Ministry order that the branches of the British Council close from the start of the year. "The British Council wants to continue its work in Russia and Saint Petersburg. We hope we'll find a solution to this," the head of the Saint Petersburg branch, Stephen Kinnock, told journalists.

"The British Council is a non-political independent organisation. We work in the areas of culture and education.... It's really disappointing that we've been dragged into what is essentially a political matter," Kinnock told AFP. Russia has accused the British Council of operating outside its official status and of violating tax regulations, charges the council denies. The council operates as a department of the British embassy under a 1994 accord on cultural, scientific and educational ties. It has greatly scaled back its number of offices in Russia from 15 in 2005 to the current three, although British Council staff insist this is for operational reasons rather than due to pressure by the authorities.


British Council head detained in Russia

The British Council has temporarily closed its offices in St Petersburg after its director was detained for an hour by police. Stephen Kinnock, the son of former Labour leader Lord Kinnock, was held by road police officers last night on suspicion of drunk driving. He was held for an hour before being released with consular help. The Council has said it is "deeply concerned" after it emerged that its staff in Russia had been summoned for questioning by the state Federal Security Service (FSB) and visited at home. David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, branded the "intimidation" of Council staff "completely unacceptable" and said the Government was informing the Russian ambassador of its concerns.

"The work of the British Council in Russia is completely legal under Russian and international law, and we think it is very important to defend the integrity of our officials in the work that they are doing," he said. "The only losers from any attack on the British Council are the Russian citizens who want to use it - one and a quarter million last year - and the reputation of the Russian government." A British Council spokeswoman: "We are deeply concerned by both of these incidents. Our main concern is the safety and security of our Russian and UK staff." This afternoon, the St Petersburg operation was suspended "temporarily" because Russian staff were being interviewed.

A spokesman said: "Due to the action taken against us by the Russian authorities, our operation in St Petersburg is temporarily suspended. "This is due to the local Russian staff having to do interviews with and discussions with the FSB. As a result there are not enough staff to manage the office." The British Council has defied Russia, opening its offices in two cities despite an order from Moscow to shut them down. Sir Anthony Brenton, the British ambassador, was summoned to explain why London had ignored the order for the British Council's premises in St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg to be closed down from New Year's Day. Sir Anthony received a formal protest from Vladimir Titov, the deputy foreign minister. Afterwards, the ambassador said he had informed Mr Titov that the "British Council is working entirely legally and it will continue therefore to work and any Russian action against it would be a breach of international law".

Sir Anthony added that the British Council was "very helpful to Russia and is actually very popular among the Russian people". For its part, Russia said that Sir Anthony had been informed that the British Council's decision to stay open was an "intentional provocation aimed at inflaming tensions in Russian-British relations". Russia also said that no new visas would be issued for any British Council staff wishing to enter the country. Human rights activists have accused the Kremlin of acting out of spite and of damaging the interests of ordinary Russians, many of whom use the British Council's library and cultural centre.

Britain expelled four Russian diplomats last July after the Kremlin refused to extradite Andrei Lugovoi, a former KGB officer and newly elected MP, who is also the chief suspect in the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, the Russian dissident, in London in 2006. Although Russia responded by evicting an equal number of British diplomats from Moscow, President Vladimir Putin played down the row, describing it as a "mini-crisis" and raised hopes that diplomatic ties could improve. Why the Kremlin has decided to resurrect the crisis by turning against the British Council is unclear. Some observers believe that factional battles within the regime could explain the decision.

Hard- liners in Mr Putin's inner circle of former KGB officers might have taken advantage of the souring in relations to target an organisation that they have always regarded as a cover for British intelligence. Officials have accused the British Council of recruiting talented Russian youngsters by offering them scholarships to study in Britain. Seven students have been given one-year bursaries to attend British universities. Others maintain that Britain has been caught in a Kremlin campaign to distract attention from Mr Putin's ambitions to stay in power after a presidential election in March which the constitution prevents him from contesting. Mr Putin has unveiled plans to stay on as prime minister, ruling alongside a hand-picked presidential candidate, Dmitry Medvedev.


Russia hails closure of British Council offices

Russia claimed victory in its row with the British government's cultural centres on Friday, saying London's decision to close the British Council's regional offices was long overdue. The British Council decided to suspend operations in two Russian cities after staff were summoned for interviews with the Federal Security Service, main successor to the Soviet-era KGB. Russia had demanded the closure of the two offices on the grounds they were operating illegally, in the latest spat in a rift with Britain that started with the London murder in late 2006 of ex-spy Alexander Litvinenko. "Announcing the suspension of operations by the British Council in St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg, the British side has finally done what it should have done long ago," Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Mikhail Kamynin, said in a statement. Britain on Thursday accused Russia of using Cold War tactics to intimidate British Council staff. Foreign Minister David Miliband called Moscow's actions "reprehensible." In its statement, the Russian foreign ministry hit back at those comments. "Attempts to politicise this theme by the British side, to distort facts and resort to negative rhetoric, are not helping to improve the climate of our bilateral relations in general."


In other news:

Rising Anti-Americanism in Russia

Vladimir Dobrovinsky, 33, a teacher at a design school in Moscow, says he's not interested in politics. But bring up America and the well-traveled, university-educated Dobrovinsky holds forth. He criticizes Washington's "crude interference" in world affairs. He complains that Russia is not treated as an important partner by the Bush administration. "A lot of Russians," he says, "are angry that America deals with us like we're Thailand." Dobrovinsky is hardly alone in such sentiments. Russia is witnessing a revival of the anti-Americanism that had dissipated with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Taking their cues from President Vladimir Putin and the state-controlled media, almost half of Russians now believe America's objective is the complete destruction of Russia, according to a recent survey by the independent Levada Center. And a poll by the state-owned Russian Public Opinion Research Center suggests that Russians consider the United States to be Russia's greatest enemy (and China its greatest friend). "In the last six or seven years, anti-Americanism has been getting worse and worse. It's staggering," says Nina Khrushcheva, a professor of international relations at the New School in New York and the granddaughter of Cold War-era Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.

While there are echoes of old Soviet-style antagonisms in the Putin-era anti-Americanism, there are differences. Earlier, the clash was in large part ideological and seemed to herald a fight to the death—"We will bury you," Khrushchev warned western nations in 1956. Today, Putin is using anti-American rhetoric to boost his own popularity, tapping into widespread resentment of western-backed economic reforms made during the rapacious 1990s as well as of U.S. foreign policy. Borrowing from the same playbook as Hugo Chávez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he has accused the Bush administration of trying to tilt the outcome of parliamentary elections, and he blames Washington for all manner of misdeeds including "plunging the world into an abyss of permanent conflicts." This attitude has carried over into Russia's foreign policy, and the compliant partner that Washington had hoped for has become a belligerent opponent that fosters ties with Iran and China. The Kremlin's opposition to Washington's proposed European missile defense system and its hosting of Hamas leaders in Moscow early last year may provoke ire in the United States, though they improve Putin's ratings at home. It's a far cry from the warm U.S.-Russia relations that seemed in store in 2001, when Bush met Putin for the first time and said, "I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy."

As the repressive Soviet regime crumbled in the late 1980s, antipathy to America fell away. "There was a belief that if we opted for western values and civil liberties, life would become better," says Masha Lipman, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center. After western-backed economic "shock therapy" reforms, however, when Soviet-era price and currency controls were removed, inflation rocketed and people's savings were wiped out. Oligarchs close to Boris Yeltsin later bought up Russia's prime assets at fire-sale prices. The United States, as well as Russia's liberal parties, have consequently lost face. In its foreign policy, meanwhile, Washington is seen as marginalizing Russia. Russia opposed the war in Iraq and resents the proposed missile system and the expansion of NATO into eastern Europe as an encroachment on its strategic backyard. "The U.S. views these as its zones of interest, but for Russia they're vitally important," argues Mikhail Leontyev, the anchor of a political talk show on one of Russia's most popular television channels.

Putin has cultivated Russians' resentments, making strident nationalism and bitter anti-westernism a regular part of his public addresses. Before the parliamentary elections, he said in a nationally televised speech that his liberal opponents "scavenge like jackals at foreign embassies." Meanwhile, billboards around Moscow proclaimed that "Putin's Plan Is Russia's Victory." His message is reinforced by Russia's state-owned television channels, which dominate the airwaves, and many of Russia's major papers. "The enlargement of NATO, America's actions in Iraq and Georgia—they irritate people, and they want an explanation," explains Andrei Baranov, a political editor at Putin-friendly Komsomolskaya Pravda, one of Russia's largest papers. Russians are evidently sympathetic to Putin. His United Russia party took a landslide 64 percent of the parliamentary vote with a 63 percent turnout, an election his party would have won easily even without repressing his opponents, judging by opinion polls. He has attracted a devoted, nationalistic following among students—Kremlin-linked youth groups supervised the December voting to prevent a feared U.S.-funded revolution.

If there's any consolation for Washington, it's that, as bitter as it may be, this sentiment is not universal. It is in part fostered by Putin, and, as Condoleezza Rice suggested on a visit to Moscow last year, talk of a new Cold War seems premature. Russia may have withdrawn in July from a 1990 treaty limiting military-force numbers in Europe, but it continues to cooperate with Washington on counterterrorism, among other issues. "Americans and Russians have more in common than differences," says Alexander Lebedev, a former Duma deputy and billionaire part owner of the airline Aeroflot. "They're not facing each other across the Berlin Wall any more." Moreover, Russia's presidential elections take place in March, and the politician backed by Putin as his successor, Dmitry Medvedev, is considered to be sympathetic toward the West (he is expected to win). Medvedev has said Russia should position itself as part of Europe and that confrontation with the United States is unnecessary. At any rate, if Russia does have a change of heart, it would not be unprecedented. "The Russian mentality is of dashing from one extreme to another," says Khrushcheva. "The embrace of the West turns into the embrace of anti-Americanism and back again."


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Dear reader,

Arevordi will be taking a sabbatical to tend to personal matters. New blog commentaries will henceforth be posted on an irregular basis. The comments board however will continue to be moderated on a regular basis.

The last 20 years or so has also helped me see Russia as the last front against scourges of Westernization, Globalism, American expansionism, Zionism, Islamic extremism and pan-Turkism. I have also come to see Russia as the last hope humanity has for the preservation of classical western civilization, Apostolic Christianity and the traditional nation-state. This realization compelled me to create this blog in 2010. Immediately, this blog became one of the very few voices in the vastness of cyberia that dared to preach about the dangers of Globalism and the Anglo-American-Jewish alliance, and the only voice preaching the strategic importance of Armenia remaining within Russia's orbit. From about 2010 to 2015 I did monthly, at times weekly, commentaries about Russian-Armenian relations and Eurasian geopolitics in general. It was very difficult as I had no assistance in this endeavor. The time I put into this blog therefore came at the expense of work and family. But a powerful feeling inside me urged me to keep going; and I did.

When Armenia finally joined the EEU and integrated its armed forces into Russia's military structures a couple of years ago, I finally felt a deep sense of satisfaction and relaxation, as if a very heavy burden was lifted off my shoulders. I finally felt that my personal mission was accomplished. I therefore felt I could take a step back, as I really needed the rest. Simply put: I have lived to see the institutionalization of Russian-Armenian alliance. Also, I feel more confident now that Armenians are collectively recognizing the strategic importance of Armenia's ties with Russia. Moreover, I feel satisfied knowing that, at least on a subatomic level, I had a hand in the outcome. As a result, I feel a strong sense of mission accomplished. I therefore no longer have the urge to continue as in the past. In other words, the motivational force that had propelled me in previous years has been gradually dissipating because I feel that this blog has lived to see the realization of its stated goal. Going forward, I do not want to write merely for the sake of writing. Also, I do not want to say something if I have nothing important to say. I feel like I have said everything I needed to say. Henceforth, I will post seasonal commentaries about topics I find important. I will however continue moderating the blog's comments section on a regular basis; ultimately because I'm interested in what my readers have to say and also because it's through readers here that I am at times made aware of interesting developments.

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